“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
As it’s Black History Month, I’ve been watching various documentaries and films about the history of African Americans in this country. Though many of these go over familiar territory, I still find myself being jolted awake to some aspect of history I haven’t been aware of or simply to the force of that history. At the same time, the echoes of African American history strike me with parallels to the present, with examples of how the past is indeed prologue. Is present still.
I’ve been struck by the courage of the Freedom Riders and civil rights activists who faced prison, violence and the threat of death in their efforts to overturn segregation. At the same time I can’t help but be aware that there are so many Republican backed measures now in state legislatures designed to keep certain portions of the population from voting, particularly the young, the poor and racial minorities. I’ve been struck by the fortitude and dignity of Jackie Robinson as depicted in “42,” his courage to not fight back and how his efforts led to the desegregation of baseball and other professional sports. And yet, I can’t help but see the ways President Barack Obama, literally the most powerful man in the world, still acts as if he too must have the courage not to fight back, not to say what he truly believes, not to speak directly about race. The restrictions of being “the first African American” in many ways still hold (and certainly the myriad attempts to de-legitimize his Presidency rise from the same deep well of American racism). And then, on another level, I can’t help but see the arguments launched against Michael Sam as the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft as echoing many of the arguments against Jackie Robinson’s presence in professional baseball. Prejudice speaks the same language.
To me, Black History Month is alive, a breathing presence in my life. As an Asian American, I feel that history is my history too, and my writings stem from that history and from the specific history of African American literature.
And yet, how often do we hear whites say, Why do we have to keep going over the past? We’ve come so far. Things are not like they were. Why don’t you people let these things go?
I often think that being a person of color in this country is like being the one person in a dysfunctional family who refuses to be in denial about what has gone down in that family, who remembers the traumas and abuses of the past, who saw and still sees the elephant in the living room. Yes, that one person sees the truth of the past, but seeing that truth comes at a cost. In a way, that one person is carrying the truth of the family’s pain and abuse for all the other members of the family. The rest of the family refuses the burdens of carrying their portion of the truth. And the one person who sees and tells the truth ends up feeling ostracized; that person is the crazy one, not the rest of the family.
But what happens when a sibling or spouse or parent goes into treatment or therapy and then comes out of denial and also acknowledges the truth? Suddenly the person who has been declaring the truth of the family feels lighter, less burdened. That person feels affirmed, less crazy, more sane. Someone else has acknowledge the truth; the person is no longer alone.
In general, America, and not just white America, goes about its business as if Native Americans do not exist in the present, as if the portions of our history regarding Native Americans are long past. But if you are a Native American, especially a Native American on reservation? Certainly, you know you are alive, and you know the rest of America in many ways, wishes that you were dead, because if you are dead, America doesn’t have to deal with the fact that all of us are living on stolen land, land stolen by means of genocide. As a Native American you live with the results of that history every day; the whole reservation is a result of that history, is evidence of that history. How can you forget that history? And if you did try to forget that history, who would you be? Who would be your ancestors? To forget that history would be to forget the people who came before you and made your life possible, would be to live as a ghost unattached to anything that your father and mother and grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents lived through. That is the price the rest of America wants you to pay to become part of America.
At this point in history, white America can’t even get rid of the racist moniker of a pro football team. How can white American possibly deal with the true history of what America has done to Native Americans?
And yet, what would happen if we all did remember that history, what would happen if we all did acknowledge that history? What would that look like? How would that change this country?
As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Forgetting history is a political act. Remembering history is a political act. There is no neutral non-political position towards history. A country that would pay reparations for slavery is a different country than one that has not done so.
The German critic Walter Benjamin observed that history is most often the tale of the victors. In other words, history has traditionally served those in power. To change history, to tell the tales left out of our histories, to remember the history we want to forget—that does not serve those in power. And that is why many white people want to forget history. They want to keep the spoils of that history—both materially and psychically. They do not want to be burdened by what people of color carry. They want us to continue to be their psychic sherpas.
THE PSYCHIC SHERPA
Everyone knows the image of the sherpa who hauls the tools and supplies for the leader of the expedition. How this leader will be white, the sherpa dark. An Englishman, a Tibetan. The one known, the other anonymous. The one lightened of burden, the other bearing the burden of both.
Yes, we understand this job in its physical sense.
But does it mean to serve as a psychic sherpa? To carry the unpleasant emotions and memories of another? For one person to be weighted down by darkness, depression, madness, so the other may be lighter, happier and sane?
Do people of color carry in our psyches the memories and burdens of our history so that whites can live in amnesia–without the burdens such memories entail? Do we take in realities whites do not have to see and thus take up? And how does all this affect the mental energies we must put out in order to function in our lives?
Separate. Unequal. The realities, the history, we carry.
(from The Last Incantations, my book of poetry out in March, 2014 from Northwestern University Press)